Ko e ‘Otua mo Tonga ko hoku tofi’a. It means ‘God and Tonga are my inheritance’, and anyone who’s visited this kingdom in the South Pacific will no doubt agree. The Friendly Islands number 176 in total, but only 40 of them are inhabited. Regardless of which ones you visit, you’ll soon feel as though you’re a part of the community.
This a traditional culture that has embraced contemporary ways of life to a certain extent. As a visitor, you’ll find good food, lovely hotels and action aplenty – there’s kitesurfing, diving, surfing and plenty more things to do – but at the same time there’s a dedication to family, Sunday is for church (at all times visitors should dress conservatively), and kava and dance rituals are still practised.
The main island of Tongatapu is where most visitors start. Visit the market, check out the blowholes in the reef on the southwest side of the island or hire a sea kayak and paddle to deserted islands and sand spits, stopping to snorkel along the way.
The Vava’u group of 61 islands in the north is a popular spot for yachtsmen, who anchor in protected coves to enjoy the exquisite beaches and turquoise water. Fishermen and divers are also lured by the marine life (and the latter by excellent visibility that generally sits at about 30 metres), but this location draws the most visitors between June and November, when migrating humpback whales come to the calm waters with their new calves. There are a number of operators who offer boat trips to view and swim with these gentle giants, but book early.
For a taste of truly authentic Polynesian life, head to the volcanic isles of Ha’apai or the country’s oldest island, ‘Eua, which has some fantastic hiking through its dramatic landscape.